Israeli border police arresting Ahmad Abu Sbitan, 11, in front of his school in East Jerusalem. The police accused him of throwing a stone at them.

© Majd Gaith

Israeli soldiers arrested Ahmed, 16, in the West Bank city of Hebron last year. He said the soldiers blindfolded and handcuffed him and took him to a police station in a settlement, where he was made to sit outside on the ground for about five hours. At around 12:30 a.m., he was interrogated and accused of having a knife, which he denied. Interrogators refused his request to have his father present. He was taken to a military compound, where six or seven soldiers made him lie down and started kicking and hitting him, then forced the boy to spend the night in the cold courtyard, giving him only water and a slice of cheese. After six more days in detention, he was released without charge.

Ahmed’s ordeal has become the norm for many Palestinian children in the West Bank living under Israel’s repressive military occupation. Every year, hundreds of children are subjected to a system of juvenile justice that is violent and discriminatory.

In the West Bank, the Israeli military applies harsh rules to Palestinian children and tries them in military courts, which have a near-100 percent conviction rate.  Settler children living in the same territory are instead subject to Israel’s civil laws and courts.

With US funds providing 18.5 percent of Israel’s annual defense budget, the US has the leverage to change those practices, if only it would use it.  And there’s no getting away from the risk that US military aid – US$127.4 billion over the decades – may be underwriting unlawful Israeli practices. 

If Israeli soldiers suspect a Palestinian child of throwing a rock at a settler’s car, they may, under the rules they apply, raid his home in the middle of the night, drag him out of bed, and keep him awake for hours for interrogation without allowing him to call a parent to say where he is. Interrogators often pressure the child to sign the record of his interrogation, written in Hebrew, which most Palestinian children do not understand. And the rules permit security officials to hold him for up to four days without taking him before a judge.

But if an Israeli child living in a West Bank settlement throws a rock at a Palestinian car, he is legally protected from being interrogated at night by Israeli police, and can have a parent present at the interrogation. The police must notify Israel’s Public Defense Office of the arrest and cannot interrogate the child before the office responds, unlike in the case of a Palestinian child. Israeli authorities can hold him for at most 24 hours before taking him before a judge.

This discriminatory system is violently enforced. The majority of Palestinian children arrested by Israeli forces say that they are subjected to abuse, according to Military Court Watch, a rights group – often blindfolded with their hands tied painfully, physically abused, threatened, deprived of sleep, and strip searched. Children as young as 11 have described to me how Israeli police or soldiers put them in chokeholds, and kicked, threatened, and left them outside for hours in cold weather. Children said they urinated on themselves in fear during their arrest, and had nightmares about their detention later.

Defense for Children International Palestine, a rights group, interviewed 429 children detained between 2012 and 2015, and found that three-quarters of them suffered physical violence. Two Israeli rights groups, B’Tselem and HaMoked, recently concluded that even in East Jerusalem, where Israeli laws rather than military laws apply, ill-treatment is “the primary mode of conduct adopted by the State of Israel for dealing with boys who are suspected of stone throwing.” Police subjected one boy to a 12-hour interrogation during which they said they would not give him food or water or allow him to go to the bathroom unless he confessed, the rights groups reported.

Nothing short of serious pressure is likely to end abuses that a 2013 UNICEF report found to be “widespread, systematic and institutionalized.” Israel half-heartedly implemented a few reforms, like a “pilot” program in 2014 of issuing summonses instead of terrifying nighttime arrests. But Israel limited the program to two West Bank areas and repeatedly suspended it, citing “the security escalation.” Most summonses were delivered to children during night raids by armed forces – causing the same fear that the program was supposed to avoid.

A bill proposed yesterday by Representative Betty McCollum of Minnesota would require the secretary of state to certify that US funds are not supporting Israeli security forces that harm Palestinian children. Any legislation that could touch aid to Israel faces a steep uphill battle, but at the very least, McCollum’s bill is an opportunity for the US to start taking seriously its own contribution to the human rights abuses through which Israel has maintained its 50-year-long occupation of Palestinian lands, and pressing for those abuses to end.